The Environmental Impact of Packaging

Understanding and Reducing Your Packaging Footprint

Almost everything we make, buy, and consume comes with packaging. We need it to protect products from damage and theft, make transport easier, and keep food from spoiling. However, there’s been a lot of negative media attention on the packaging industry recently, especially for single-use plastics.

Packaging can harm the environment, and the demand for more sustainable packaging options is growing among businesses and shoppers alike. Today, there is no shortage of “eco-friendly” packaging on supermarket shelves, but how do we know if it’s actually better for the planet?

There’s so much confusion around what makes packaging sustainable that it’s easy to fall victim to greenwashing. Instead of trusting big brands’ environmental claims, learn to understand and measure your packaging footprint to make more informed purchases.


What is a Packaging Footprint?

Your packaging footprint means how much packaging you use and how much it damages the environment. We measure the carbon footprint of packaging materials in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). This unit measures how much CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere as a direct or indirect result of using specific packaging.

We must consider the entire life cycle of packaging when measuring its carbon footprint. That includes the greenhouse gases produced during manufacturing, transport, and disposal.


How To Calculate Your Packaging Footprint

You can calculate your packaging carbon footprint by considering how much and what type of packaging you use. There’s no international standard for measuring packaging sustainability yet, but we can conduct life cycle assessments (LCAs) to determine a material’s overall environmental impact. 

It’s best to buy packaging from companies that have done life cycle assessments to prove the sustainability of their products. If you don’t have access to the LCA, you can estimate packaging’s environmental impact by considering three elements: 


1. Greenhouse gas emissions 

You must consider the direct and indirect contributions packaging makes to greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of direct contributions are air pollution caused by manufacturing and the methane released as packaging decomposes in a landfill. An example of indirect or “hidden” greenhouse gas emissions is the CO2 released during shipping. Heavier packaging typically requires more fuel to transport, resulting in increased carbon emissions. 


2. Recycled material content

Packaging that contains recycled materials puts less pressure on the earth’s natural resources. For example, using recycled water bottles instead of crude oil as a raw material to make plastic bags. Using recycled materials for packaging reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill, however, it doesn’t always reduce your overall carbon footprint. 

Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to recycle packaging and turn it into new products. It’s important to compare the benefits of using recycled materials with the carbon emissions they cause to get a realistic idea of a material’s sustainability.


3. Effect on the environment

How bad would it be for the planet if this packaging went to landfill? Does it release toxic chemicals or greenhouse gases as it decomposes? It might be tempting to choose biodegradable or compostable packaging to avoid environmental pollution, but it’s not always the better choice.

You need an industrial composter to dispose of bioplastics properly; if they go to landfill, they may even release more greenhouse gases than regular plastics. Being realistic about how people will dispose of your packaging can help you choose something that creates less pollution in the real world, not only on paper.


Perfect Packaging Remains Elusive

As you can see, calculating your packaging footprint can be complex. All three elements of packaging sustainability are interconnected – chances are you’ll never find a packaging material that ticks all the boxes. 

For example, glass is 100% recyclable, but it’s very heavy and uses a lot of fuel to transport. Paper is made from renewable resources but is almost impossible to recycle if it’s been contaminated with food, oil, or grease. Sustainable packaging is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Choose materials that make sense for your situation to reduce your packaging footprint. 


3 Practical Ways To Reduce Your Packaging Footprint

While it’s far from easy to identify the single most sustainable packaging material, you can reduce your packaging footprint in other ways. Here are three practical solutions that will lower your environmental impact no matter the packaging material you choose.


1. Reuse and Recycle 

Recycling your used packaging is always better than throwing it in the dustbin. Whether you put it outside for informal waste pickers or work with a formal recycling company, you are helping to create jobs and clean up the environment. Recycling packaging can offset your carbon emissions from other activities and reduce your overall environmental footprint. 


2. Choose Local

Whether made from recycled materials or not, importing packaging drastically increases your carbon footprint. Rather choose locally-made packaging that supports South African businesses. Even heavy glass jars can be more environmentally friendly than lightweight PET when they come from a neighbouring city.


3. Go Packaging-Free

While we can’t go without packaging completely, try to reduce the amount you use by investing in reusable shopping bags, coffee cups, and containers. Buying fresh and in bulk helps you come home with fewer bottles and jars and leave a smaller packaging footprint in the long run. If you own a business, consider offering refillable containers so your customers can join in.


Sustainable Packaging Solutions for Your Business 

eWASA helps businesses in the packaging industry build robust collection, recycling, and green-design programmes in line with South Africa’s EPR laws. Contact us for more information.



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